This article was first published in the August 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine
All roads lead to Bruges. It lies at the hub of all the major European trade routes: north to Scandinavia and south over the Alps to Rome, west to the Portuguese seaboard and east through Bohemia, Outremer and Cathay.
When to go
As part of the Hanseatic League trading alliance, it’s the premier money market for northern Europe and any time is good for business. Been bad? Make a pilgrimage on Ascension Day when the relic of the Holy Blood is carried round town in a lavish spectacle. Or, if it’s exotic buys you’re after, brave the Narrow Sea and come to a winter frost fair on Kraanrei canal.
What to take with you
The one essential is a bill of exchange. These days nobody trudges round with a coin chest. Paper is the thing.
It’s portable, thief-proof and exchangeable in the Beursplein square for the best rates on the day. Your innkeeper will put you in touch with a money-changer and indeed may be a changer himself, like the famous Van Der Beurze innkeepers who started the Exchange.
Costs and money
They say if you don’t have money, don’t come. As the biggest mercantile centre north of the Alps, luxury goods from the world-over come through Bruges. On the other hand – with a constant stream of customers, fertile farmland and local brewhouses – food and drink are cheaper than London.
Sights and activities
Start in the heart of Bruges at the Exchange in Beursplein and marvel at the dexterity of the money-changers under the portico. Over a hundred coins from ducats to zloty are revalued here every day. Then go to the nearby Markt (market square) where you can shop, watch the jousting or see a public execution.
Next slip into the Burg square. Here, the Basilica of the Holy Blood is a must-see. It contains a phial of the Blood brought back from the crusades. It hasn’t liqueﬁed since around 1330, but who knows, you might be lucky. Then climb the Belfort Tower above the Schatkamer (treasury). Admire the palace of the Duke of Burgundy and the wealthy merchants’ houses.
Visit the Waterhalle, the covered market alongside the Kraanrei canal. Watch laden barges bringing exotic imports into the city. You’ll see spices and dyes from Levant, Chinese silks, Baltic leather, Greek wine, Danish horses, Norwegian hawks, Turkish carpets, Afghan lapis lazuli (precious stones), Seville oranges and all the riches of Outremer. Finally, visit the gold and silversmiths’ workshops in the warren of streets nearby, admire their skill and shudder at the prices.
After that you’ll need a drink, so back to the hub to the inns around the Markt.
Dangers and annoyances
Since the battle of Roosebeke (in which the French defeated a Flemish army) a couple of years ago the city has swarmed with wounded veterans, many cared for by the sisters at the Beguinage religious community near Minnewater. Pickpockets are rife, armed robbers less so, now that coin is rarely carried.
Merchants forced to heave actual money to the exchange chain it to themselves and travel with armed guards. And you’ll be stopped by minstrels and acrobats, magicians and astrologers, with hands out.
Avoid the mendicant preachers ranting against usury. These days even the church will lend and borrow at interest to cover their inconvenience.
Sleeping and accommodation
Don’t count on sleep. Crowded inns mean you’ll be ﬁve or six on a straw mattress. The more you pay, the fewer the ﬂeas. Ladies hire curtained cubicles but this doesn’t keep out the sound of snores and flatulence from their fellow travellers.
Eating and drinking
Gourmets rejoice! The burghers of Bruges love food. Try jugged hare, rabbit in mustard sauce, waterzooi (ﬁsh soup), beef in beer, raw herring, blood sausages, pies, local cheeses, plus what you’re used to at home, from mussels and oysters to pigeon, teal, roast pig and venison. Street stalls sell waffles heated on irons, with a choice of sweet, savoury or spicy add-ons.
You can’t eat without drinking. Hundreds of beers will test your stamina, the best from the Cistercians, but every inn brews its own with recipes of devilish strength.
It’ll be clear by now this is shopper heaven. Nothing is ready-made, of course, but choose your fabric in the Markt on arrival and your new hat or tunic will be ready next day. Spanish boots? The shoemaker will measure you up and you’ll wear them to go home in. New sleeves for the mistress? Pearl-covered silk, translucent lawn, velvet or brocade, the choice is yours.
Buy Milanese body armour, German swords, Baltic amber, ivory, gold and silver rings, brooches and ornaments for your belts and bags, or pewter charms to wear on your undershirt to ward off evil. Buy rosaries, illuminated books of hours, paintings on wood. It’s all here. At a price.
They call it the Venice of the North. Enter through the main gate, Smedenpoort, and use the canals to cross town.
With a population of 40,000, Bruges rivals London and, despite the usual urban violence, is pleasant to walk round. Take the canal to Damme, the outport. Marvel at the 700 ships that sail out every day to the furthest reaches of the known world on the quest for exotic luxuries.
Cassandra Clark is the author of the Abbess of Meaux Mysteries series. The second, Red Velvet Turnshoe (John Murray, 2009), is partly set in medieval Bruges
Bruges has kept its seat at Europe’s top table. While the commercial circus has moved on to London, Frankfurt and Milan, tourism has filled the gap, bringing coach, train and boat loads of visitors to one of the continent’s most perfect medieval cities. Granted, many of the buildings that wow tourists are more recent replicas but, no matter, to get a slice of authentic history there’s nowhere to touch it until you hit Venice.
Still here is the relic of the Holy Blood, housed in the Basilica of the same name, as well as Beursplein and the city’s canals, the focus of cruises, cafes and waterside ambles.
Bruges is so popular, in fact, that you have to work hard to enjoy it at its busiest. Come out of season and during the week to avoid the crowds. This is somewhere to stay overnight, too, to see the city more quietly and stroll deserted lanes and alleys.
The other reason to stay late is to enjoy the dining scene, which is classified as traditional Belgian but in reality, as Cassandra Clark shows, has been around for much longer than Belgium. That’s worth a Bruges-brewed beer or three.
If you like this…
If you’re hooked on medieval northern Europe, you could always get off a few stops early on the train from Brussels and explore Ghent. For another Hanseatic delight, Gdansk in Poland is a treat, as well as being one of Europe’s great historic destinations.
Tom Hall, editor, lonelyplanet.com